HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) - A line of baton-wielding police on Wednesday stopped a march by Zimbabwean doctors protesting the alleged abduction of a union leader as fears grew about government repression - and about his fate.
The Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association has said its president, Peter Magombeyi, was seized Saturday after calling for a pay strike, and members say they will not return to work until he is found. The southern African nation’s health care system has largely collapsed in recent years along with the economy.
More than 50 government critics and activists have been abducted this year, at times tortured and warned by suspected state security agents to back off from anti-government actions. One woman was forced to drink raw sewage, Human Rights Watch said in a statement, adding that no one has been arrested over the “alarming spike” in abductions.
“All these abductions are people breaking into homes, masked and carrying military weapons such as AK-47s,” human rights lawyer Doug Coltart said. “But typically we have seen them found within a few hours. In the few instances when that has not happened, they were found dead in mortuaries months later. So the fact that we are four days and there is no sign of him is of extreme concern.”
Some in Zimbabwe have openly worried that the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa is becoming more repressive than that of longtime leader Robert Mugabe, who died earlier this month. Mugabe was accused of using abductions to silence critics, and some have never been found.
Several dozen doctors chanted and sang as they tried to march to Parliament from the country’s biggest hospital, Parirenyatwa, in Harare. Police insisted they seek approval for the demonstration first.
The doctors’ association represents hundreds of newly qualified doctors doing their residencies. Health professionals at other government hospitals across Zimbabwe have gone on strike in solidarity, union leaders told The Associated Press.
But it carries risks. The secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Nurses Association, Nhema Edwick, said he had received anonymous death threats for bargaining for more pay for nurses.
“The government should stop targeting us as union leaders. All we are asking for is a living wage. I am also living in fear,” he told the cheering demonstrators.
Senior doctors said they have stopped working as well.
“It is much easier to produce one person (Magombeyi) than to convince us to return to work. No Peter, no work,” said Bothwell Mbuwayesango, a pediatric surgeon.
Zimbabweans left without health care expressed concern.
“We are the ones who are suffering, they should just release the doctor,” said Munei Ndlovu, sitting on the Parirenyatwa Hospital grounds. She said she had been told the hospital was attending to critical emergencies only.
The government says it is deploying military medics and doctors to help fill the gap at hospitals.
Magombeyi has been held longer than those abducted in recent weeks. “We are now not even sure whether he is alive or dead. We are praying he is still alive,” said Harry Magombeyi, a family spokesman.
“It’s really scary right now the situation that we have been put in, the gross injustice. We are not able to really survive in Zimbabwe,” said one doctor, Tatenda Memeza. “We are young professionals and we have dreams and now one of our colleagues is speaking truth to power and we have come to this level where he is abducted.”
The U.S. Embassy on Monday said more than 50 civil society, labor and opposition leaders have been abducted in Zimbabwe since January, and called on the government “to take action and hold perpetrators of these human rights violations accountable.”
Most abductees, including during Mugabe’s time, were released after days or weeks of torture, at times following the intervention of the courts.
However, some people such as journalist and activist Itai Dzamara, who was abducted in 2015, are still missing.
State Security Minister Owen Ncube and Health Minister Obadiah Moyo on Tuesday said they had tasked security agents to locate Magombeyi. Other officials blamed a “third force” linked to Mugabe for the abductions, asserting that they are bid to tarnish the president’s image abroad and hurt efforts to have sanctions imposed by the West removed.
The country’s biggest representative organization for churches, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, on Tuesday questioned the “third force” explanation, asking why only perceived government critics are being targeted.
Associated Press video journalist Pindai Dube in Harare, Zimbabwe contributed.
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